dreams

What happens when we dream?

Dreaming is something almost all of us do, some of us remember, and most of us take for granted. But why do we dream?

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, or dream sleep, is our mind’s natural way of processing the emotions around whatever we have thought about or experienced during the day. Perhaps we have been brooding following an argument with a friend. Perhaps we have fretted over a presentation we have to give at work the following day. Perhaps we have been flattened by an stampede of bad news, and wept for those around the world who are suffering.

These thoughts have scurried around our brains like commuters at a busy airport, each with a different purpose, each with a different set of worries, raised voices rising towards a constant noise, that is so inescapable we forget it’s even there. In his book Waking Up Sam Harris refers to this noise as the “trance of discursive thought”. For the majority of us, unless we have refined meditative techniques to hand, it is not until we leave behind consciousness and enter into sleep that the airport empties and we escape the din of competing thoughts.

Unless we are suffering with severe anxiety or depression, REM sleep, which makes up only 20% of our sleep patterns, is designed to carry out crowd control on this thought chaos, processing each thought by converting it from an emotional memory into a narrative memory. These narrative memories are then moved from our primitive brain into our intellectual brain, where we have more control over them.

At the onset of REM sleep the brain behaves in much the same way as if someone were to bang saucepans together behind our heads as we sat quietly reading a book. Founders of the Human Givens approach Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell suggest that the reason the eyes move around rapidly as we dream (hence the name rapid eye movement), is that we are responding to the signal that something very important is happening, right now, and we are searching for what it might be. This search is in vain however, as the source of emotional arousal is internal rather than external, as we metaphorically act out, within our dreams, the unresolved musings from the day, discharging their emotional baggage.

Our dreams are creative, unbound by the rationale and logic that governs our conscious minds, which equips them to clear emotional hurdles that our awake selves simply stare at helplessly. Dreams help us to peel away the layers of frustration, anxiety and fear from our thoughts, until we are left with smooth pearls of wisdom. We file these pearls away in the library of our intellectual mind, in cabinet drawers labeled ‘perspective’, ‘understanding’, and ‘knowledge’. 

There is much research yet to be done to help us understand exactly how dreams process anxiety, however plenty of existing research shows that they do, and do so incredibly effectively. Quietening the noise, calming our minds, making space. Ready for tomorrow’s thought onslaught.

Griffin, Joe; Tyrrell, Ivan (2013). Human givens : a new approach to emotional health and clear thinking (New Ed.). Chalvington, East Sussex: HG Publishing.

Harris, S. (2014). Waking up. Simon & Schuster